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I Am The Night mashes a true tabloid tale into middlebrow pop-pulp TV

Katie Rife Jan 29, 2019. 5 comments
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

The 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short—forever enshrined in the annals of true-crime history as the Black Dahlia—is only tangential to the story of TNT’s new period thriller I Am The Night. But the limited series’ tabloid bona fides are still strong: It’s based on One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings Of Fauna Hodel, Hodel’s 2008 memoir about her journey to find her birth parents in ’60s Los Angeles, and the shocking revelations she found there. If you want to remain completely spoiler-free, it’s best not to read up on the real Fauna Hodel, who died in 2017, as even the back-jacket copy on her memoir gives away one of the show’s central mysteries. That being said, it’s a tale full of intrigue, scandal, and murder, presented with a middlebrow prestige-sleaze gloss that should really hit the spot for Twin Peaks fans who felt the third season could have used less metaphysics and more cherry pie.

The Secret Life Of The American Teenager’s India Eisley stars as Fauna—or, as she’s called when the story opens, Pat. Raised by Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), a black single mother struggling to make ends meet in rural Nevada, Fauna/Pat has never felt as though she belonged in her family. It’s a common teenage complaint, but for Fauna, it turns out to be true: After discovering a birth certificate listing her birth mother’s name as “Tamar Hodel” and her birth father’s name as “unknown,” Jimmy Lee finally breaks and tells her daughter the truth. She’s the unplanned, biracial offspring of the wild-child daughter of a prominent white family in Los Angeles, whose patriarch, a famous gynecologist named George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), gave baby Fauna to Jimmy Lee and her then-husband in the bathroom of a casino. Stunned by the revelation, Fauna ignores Jimmy Lee’s warnings and gets on the first bus to L.A. to meet her mother and grandfather.

All of that actually happened. What did not happen is much of what occurs after Fauna arrives in L.A., chiefly her association with Jay Singletary (Chris Pine). Invented for the series, Singletary is a walking hangover of midcentury history, a once up-and-coming journalist whose career was ruined by scandal and his intense, sometimes hallucinatory “shell shock” (a.k.a. PTSD) from serving in the Korean war. Pine is believably grimy in the role, successfully shedding his heroic movie star persona to play a desperate, drug-addled mess with delusions of being Sam Spade. Eisley, for her part, reacts to Pine’s twitchy bravado with big, moist eyes and slow, slightly Southern-accented line delivery, though her character turns out to be much smarter and more willful than she appears.

I Am The Night has been trumpeted as Pine’s big reunion with his Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. Connie Nielsen, the unsung member of the trio, also appears—and is great in—a supporting role. Jenkins directs the first three episodes, setting the tone for the series with golden backlit interiors and snappy blockbuster pacing more reminiscent of ’70s neo-noirs like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye than the chiaroscuro-laden original article. (Despite its title, I Am The Night is consistently well-lit.) For the latter half of the series, Jenkins turns directorial duties over to Victoria Mahoney (You, American Crime, Power) and Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil In A Blue Dress), both of whom follow Jenkins’ aesthetic lead as the story gets darker and more twisted.

In real life, Fauna’s half-brother, Steve Hodel, has devoted his life to proving his pet theory on the Black Dahlia murder—which, again, is all we’ll say here, though you can get some spoilers for I Am The Night by clicking the link above. In the series, this unproven theory is presented as fact, and paired with recurring themes of surrealist painting, Art Deco architecture, and the ancient symbol of the bull for a novel visual interpretation of the decadent appetites of the rich and sociopathic. Combined with the bright, wholesome California sunlight, the effect is enjoyably pulpy, somewhat akin to a primetime soap opera, and less sinister than the subject matter might lead you to believe.

Perhaps, then, it makes sense that I Am The Night is at its most convincing when it’s at its most relaxed. Overall, the supporting performances are mixed, with an inverse relationship between a character’s hard-boiled qualities and their believability. (A similar effect can be seen in Pine’s performance; a particularly intense jailhouse monologue in the final episode is staged and lit in a flat, conventional way that dulls its impact.) Brooks, whose Jimmy Lee exists on the periphery of the Hodel family intrigue, is a standout as Fauna’s stern, conflicted adoptive mother, and scenes set at Fauna’s cousin’s house in South Central L.A. exude a natural camaraderie that may make you wish the story revolved around that family instead.

The same can be said for Nielsen as embittered socialite Corinna Hodel, an avant-garde performance artist who apes one of Yoko Ono’s most famous pieces in a “happening” in the fourth episode. (Yes, the outfits are amazing.) Both Jimmy Lee and Corinna are complicated women, forced against their will into keeping secrets for a man they hate, but are helpless to fight. It takes a while to really get going, but once I Am The Night starts spilling its secrets, it doesn’t stop until the very end. What does it say about I Am The Night, then, that the keeping of those secrets is more intriguing than the reveal?

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